Viva Villa!

Certainly an unpopular and even dangerous thing to say today down on the Texas border, where they are reclaiming the bodies of two Americans killed by bandits in Matamoros. But by ironic coincidence March 9 marks the 107th anniversary of the predawn attack on the little town of Columbus, New Mexico, and the adjacent U.S cavalry Camp Furlong by the outlawed bandit and failed revolutionary Pancho Villa.

It’s not clear Villa himself was on the scene or directing the attack from otra de lado, just as there is some uncertainty over whether he was aiming for the 13th Cavalry’s stables and armories, the vault of the local bank (it was still standing forlorn in an empty lot the last time I visited), or the head of the town’s leading merchant, who had cheated the general on an arms deal.

Whatever Villa’s motives, the raid left 17 American soldiers and citizens dead. Public outrage forced revered professional intellectual and passive-aggressive pacifist President Woodrow Wilson to send the Army into Mexico to capture Villa “dead or alive.” If you’re interested in the details, I highly recommend The Great Pursuit.

America faces a much greater threat today from the murderous cartels that have controlled the border for more than a generation, reaping enormous profits from the traffic in illegal immigrants and illicit drugs. We’ve ignored that underlying problem in our endless arguments over immigration and border security, but it’s past time both governments confront the issue –hopefully with more success than Black Jack Pershing (hampered by a hostile Mexican government and a dithering Presidential administration) had in chasing Pancho Villa.

‘the judgments of the Lord’

I rose to the defense of Black Jack Logan in an earlier post, but today it’s appropriate to revisit the General John Logan Memorial with an emphasis on the “Memorial” rather than the man whose name it bears. Logan flourishes his country’s flag astride a horse in Chicago’s Grant Park not for his military qualities (he was abler than most of the Union’s generals, but that’s faint praise). His most significant and lasting achievement came in 1868 when as Commander In Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic he called on his fellow veterans to make May 30 a national day of remembrance for their 365,000 comrades who gave their lives to preserve the Union.

They also not coincidentally ended slavery in the “Land of the Free.” Those today who have forgotten the sacrifice that entailed would do well to revisit Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

Another very tough old man

My obsession with historic monuments and their cultural significance sidetracked my last post, which turned into a defense of the “Minuteman” statue. But what I set out to do on the anniversary of the opening clashes of the American Revolution was to recall the story of yet another old man in the mold of Nana.

Sam Whittemore fought for the crown in King George’s War (1744-48) and the later French and Indian War (1754-63). He retired a captain of dragoons and settled on a farm in Massachusetts to enjoy his golden years.

He was 80 years old when the King’s men showed up in his dooryard. Humiliated by their repulse at Concord and infuriated by the sniping that was thinning their ranks as they retreated to Boston, the redcoats revenged themselves on the countryside as they went, burning and plundering farms along the line of march and shooting suspected rebels on the spot.

Although far too old to have any obligation to militia service, Captain Whittemore picked up his musket, added a brace of dueling pistols and a cutlass (a souvenir of his service against the French) and went out to contest these outrages. He took his stand behind a stone wall and opened fire on the King’s 47th Regiment of Foot.

He killed one soldier with his musket and then killed another and mortally wounded a third with his pistols as the grenadiers charged the ambush, then fended off their bayonets with his cutlass until shot in the face. As he struggled to regain his feet, the redcoats clubbed him down with their gun butts and bayoneted him on the ground. They left him for dead by the roadside, but when his neighbors came to collect the body they found the old man up on one knee, reloading his musket.

A local doctor could do no more than bandage the captain’s 13 stab wounds and the bullet wound to his head before sadly ordering him carried home so that he might die surrounded by his family. Instead, the tough old soldier recovered and lived another 18 years before dying at age 98. I’d love to see Clint Eastwood play him in the biopic.

That memory may their deed redeem,

Wonder why we struggle to preserve old monuments? Emerson got it:

On this green bank, by this soft stream,

    We set to-day a votive stone;

That memory may their deed redeem,

    When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare

    To die, and leave their children free,

Bid Time and Nature gently spare

    The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Today’s an anniversary little remembered or honored in history classes where the lessons focus on the sins of our forefathers instead of their virtues. But the clashes at first Lexington and then Concord and back to Boston (the British regulars carried the first but lost the second catastrophically once the Americans learned a hard lesson: the best way to confront a red coat was from behind a bush) were pivotal in the history of the world. When Washington heard the news he wrote: “The once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched in blood or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?”

The resolute farmer clutching his musket in one hand and resting the other on a plow was sculpted by Daniel Chester French and cast from the metal of Civil War cannons on the centenary of those first fateful skirmishes of the American Revolution.

Black Jack

There have been a pair of Black Jacks in the Army. The latest was John J. Pershing. There used to be a statue of him shaking hands with Pancho Villa in a little plaza in Palomas, but I haven’t been down there in years and can’t guess if it’s still there.

The first was John A. Logan, a Civil War general known to his troops as Black Jack for his “swarthy” good looks. (Can you still use that word or is it now considered pejorative? Looking at his picture I would have called him “Black Irish,” although I know nothing of his heritage but his name.)

His equestrian statue stands in Chicago but may be riding off into the sunset in the near future, depending on how quickly the wheels of Social Justice grind. Logan’s is one of more than 40 works of public art the Chicago Monuments Project finds worthy of discussion.

Black Jack Logan was a hero. As a sitting Congressman, he might have watched First Bull Run with the other feckless picnickers on the heights above the battlefield. Instead he joined the fight as an “unattached volunteer” with a Michigan militia regiment. From Virginia he rode west to campaign under U.S.Grant, where he had his horse shot from underneath him at the Battle of Belmont and was wounded himself at the taking of Fort Donelson. While recuperating he resigned his Congressional seat and returned to Illinois to raise a regiment for the Union.

He commanded a division at Vicksburg and a corps at Atlanta. In the final months of the war, Logan led the XV Corps on Sherman’s destructive march through the Carolinas, a campaign which freed tens of thousands of jubilant slaves.

Unfortunately, “recent scholarship” has unearthed evidence that despite shedding blood for the Union and personally freeing thousands of slaves, Black Jack was a pre-War Democrat and political supporter of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas and so was “insensitive to the moral repugnance of slavery” or even “proslavery.”

It’s true that Douglas, the northern Democrat who ran against Lincoln in 1860, was opposed to abolition on the grounds that it would ruin the Southern economy and very probably lead to secession and bloodshed. Logan had grave forebodings that a sudden influx of uneducated and impoverished former slaves into Northern cities would foster not integration but generations of racial friction.

As it turns out, they were both right.

Ronald Reagan warned of the consequences of not educating Americans in their history:

“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.”


In my youth the beauty of poetry was blunted by the pedants who focused on structure rather than substance, attacking what the ancients honored as divine inspiration like boys dissecting a bird in search of the source of its song. One of the few blessings of the past year has been the leisure to allow me to rediscover the emotional impact of well-crafted verse. Now whenever I think of Nana I can’t but recall Macaulay’s Horatius at the Bridge:

“To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers

And temples of his Gods.”

“The cowards never start…”

What I find most dismaying about the current wave of iconoclastic vandalism is the acquiescence and even support for the mob’s demands from our political leadership. Whether a cynical bid for short-term political advantage or craven cowardice, Dismounting Kit Carson “proactively for safety and as a precautionary measure to keep it from being torn down,”  dishonors all of us as heirs to his legacy far more than it insults the man himself.

Kit Carson never ran from a fight in his life. To traduce his memory by calling him “as bad and as evil as any Confederate general,” is simply malevolent ignorance. Carson  was not just physically courageous, he was honest, straightforward in his opinions and a man who stood by his word. He followed orders even when he disagreed with them because he was bound by his oath to obey.

I take what has become the unpopular position of defending his conduct of the Navajo campaign in 1864, the one incident in his long career his critics seize on to define his life. Carson marched through Canyon de Chelly as Sherman marched through Georgia that same year. Carson probably wouldn’t have approved of Sherman’s tactics, but his boss, General James Carleton, did. Carson could have resigned and left a dirty job to some other man, but he stood to his duty.

And just as Sherman’s Year o’ Jubilo brought a lasting peace to the South, the final defeat of the Navajo ended centuries of endemic border warfare between Navajo, Pueblo and Hispanics. That long cycle of theft and reprisal, murder and revenge, enabled by and supporting a sordid trade in whisky, guns, livestock and captives, was finally broken by Col. Carson and the men of the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry.


The fight over Don Juan

I didn’t have Albuquerque on my 2020 bingo card. But when the nationwide mania for iconoclasm metastasized to include other historical figures beyond Confederate generals, it was inevitable that an old battle would be rejoined over New Mexico’s most famous conquistador. Dead for close to four centuries, Don Juan de Oñate remains a polarizing figure, revered as a heroic founding father by a great many of the state’s near-majority Hispanic population and reviled as a cruel oppressor by a smaller but aggressive alliance of Native Americans and White Progressives. There have been recurring attempts to topple him from his pedestal, but all previous clashes ended in no more than harsh words. What’s changed has been the political establishment’s decision to side with the mob rather than the law. Given that abdication, violence was the inevitable result.


Ira Hayes was a Pima who had hardly ever been off the reservation in Arizona before he enlisted in the Marines. He never learned how to cope with his wartime memories or his fame as one of the iconic flag raisers. He drank himself to death at age 32.